Home Computer: How computers should be: Sue Schofield shoulders her Amstrad notebook and takes a Swiss Army knife to the opposition

Sue Schofield
Friday 09 July 1993 00:02 BST

I have given up on portable computers. You can find out why by going into Sainsbury's and putting 3.5kg of sugar into an empty basket. That is the weight of the latest generation of colour laptops being marketed as 'portables'. Add another 2kg of demerara to represent the manuals, case and vital battery charger and then lug the basket around the store for a couple of hours. This is the sort of portability that would have even the most noble of Sherpas tensing.

But the main reason for giving up on portables was last year's launch of the Amstrad NC100 Notepad. This is the size of a skinny A4 road atlas and uses four AA batteries which give up to 20 hours of use, foregoing the need for frequent traipsing to the Ladies in search of a hairdryer socket for recharging purposes. This activity becomes vital when your computer's four-hour battery gives up after two hours and ten minutes, a fact of computing life always overlooked by computer designers.

The Amstrad can take the punishment meted out by casual transportation in my shoulder bag, where it jostles with a small tape recorder and a Swiss Army knife. The pruning attachments in the knife were once needed to repair fingernails brutalised by the short-travel keyboards of laptops and notebooks, but it is no longer needed as the NC100 is blessed with a decent full-size keyboard. This has knobbles on the 'home' keys, put there to tell you that the NC100 is not a toy in spite of its Fisher-Price appearance.

And I can even work the Amstrad without recourse to those multicoloured 'dumbo' keys. Once you have got the hang of the thing the red, yellow, green and blue function keys serve only to remind you of how computer-illiterate you were: 'To use the word processor, press Yellow and Red, stupid.'

The NC100 is ludicrously easy to get started as it does not require you to undergo the tyranny of learning Dos or Windows - the PC-compatible operating systems - before you can write your first letter. It even prints to almost anything you can find that fits the sockets on the back. This is How Computers Should Be.

The Amstrad stores up to 150,000 words at a time on its one megabyte PCMCIA storage card. This card is battery-backed and removable and one card can carry the manuscript of a full-length book. These devices are the size of a Barclaycard and less of a liability than floppy disks.

When the computer world eventually catches up with the Amstrad, I will be able to buy a PCMCIA Card Drive to grab the data from the cards directly - at the moment I need a null-modem lead to transfer data to the PCs and Macs I use whilst deskbound. And the computer knows just enough about communications to be able to send and receive text documents via the telephone, so a small battery operated modem lives alongside it.

I did dally recently with a Dell 325SLI notebook PC and for a while was besotted with its VGA screen and slim-line looks. But the Amstrad is much closer to the ideal machine for a peripatetic scribbler as it does not have a hard disk to suffer the slings and arrows of daily misfortune. Previous experience confirms that hard disks and mobile authors only work well together until the day after the warranty expires. Then all is irretrievably lost as a matter of course.

Naturally, the NC100 lacks some features. It does not have a 120-megabyte hard disk, there is no spreadsheet for charts of accounts and it does not run Windows.

Nor does it have a VGA colour display and it consequently does not impress people on trains. This is extremely useful as I can work away undisturbed without some suit leaning over my shoulder proffering advice on Windows Swapfile settings. The Amstrad has zero street cred. People leave you alone when they find out you have one.

To celebrate its splendid non-standardisation, the NC100 has the words 'User Friendly' printed above the screen in small affable letters. If you decide that you do not agree after five minutes of use, then Alan Sugar will give you your money back, no questions asked. This is the sort of heavyweight guarantee that should come with all computers, regardless of size.

Vital statistics

System: Proprietary

Maker: Amstrad

Features: Fitted with Protext word processing, calculator, diary, address book and file transfer software. Comes with case, batteries and mains adaptor.

Availability: Retailers.

Price: List poounds 199; Street: pounds 160

Add-ons: 256K memory card (stores about 30,000 words), pounds 70; 1-megbyte PCMCIA card, pounds 160; null-modem lead, pounds 14.

(All prices include VAT)

Jargon buster

Backlight: Type of lighting on portables which have their own source of illumination for the screen. More basic models depend on an external light source falling on the screen.

Memory resident programs: Also known as Terminate-and-stay-resident programs (TSRs). A Dos program that remains stored in the computer's main memory when not running so that it can be quickly restarted.

Null-modem cable: A cable that allows two computers to communicate without the use of modems.

PCMCIA card: A portable credit card-size storage medium used with very small computers and calculators.

VGA: A medium-high quality screen resolution standard for PC-compatible computers which gives 640 pixels or screen dots by 480 pixels.

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